The Impact of Indian Ocean Salt on The End of The Last Ice Age

Category Science

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According to a new study, the end of the last ice age that began roughly 15,000 years ago was influenced by the arrival of warm and super salty water from the Indian Ocean into the Atlantic Ocean. Scientists from St Andrews and Cardiff Universities reconstructed the ocean temperature and salinity of the ice age cycle over a period of 1.5 million years and analyzed fossil shells from 40-meter-long core of deep-sea mud for chemical fingerprints to come to this conclusion.

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The coldest conditions struck our planet during the Ice Age period. For decades, scientists have been trying to identify different underlying factors that eventually contributed to the end of the Ice Age.

Now, new research has provided another possible explanation for the end of the ice age.

According to the study, the arrival of warm, super salty water into the Atlantic Ocean from the Indian Ocean may have contributed to the end of the last ice age around 15,000 years ago.

The Ice Age period lasted from roughly 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago.

Researchers from St Andrews and Cardiff Universities came to this conclusion after examining the ancient fossil shells. "We discovered more than ten years ago that the end of the ice age saw a massive pulse in Atlantic currents, which helped usher in warmer inter-glacial conditions. Our new study shows that the salt that helped make these currents so dense and powerful was sourced from more than 10,000km away in the Indian Ocean," said Professor Steve Barker, one of the study authors, in a statement.

The data used by this study was collected from cores of deep-sea mud extracted from the ocean floor.

For this study, the team went down the history road by reconstructing the ocean temperature and salinity of the ice age cycle of the last 1.5 million years. The findings revealed that during the peak time of each ice age, the Indian Ocean's waters became extremely salty. The study discovered that until the end of the last ice age, salty water was restricted to the Indian Ocean, but changes in winds and currents allowed it to flood into the Atlantic.

The Indian Ocean was blocked from the Pacific Ocean during this period, which enabled evaporation to make its waters increasingly salty.

"Under the hot sunshine of the subtropics, seawater evaporates and gets saltier. Typically in the Indian Ocean, this salt is diluted by fresher waters flowing in from the Pacific, but during the ice ages this current was cut off by a drop in sea level, so the salt could build up undiluted," explained Sophie Nuber, the lead author of this study, in an official statement.

This study was made possible thanks to the chemical fingerprints locked in microscopic fossil shells. These fossils were recovered from the 40-meter-long core of deep-sea mud. The measurement enabled the reconstruction of the temperature and salinity of the seawater in which the shells grew.

The Agulhas Current is a warm Indian Ocean current that carries warm, saline waters to the South Atlantic.

Dr. James Rae, from the University of St Andrews, said, "Our work shows how different parts of the climate system are surprisingly inter-connected. Changes in circulation and salinity in one part of the ocean can have huge impacts on the other side of the planet, so we need to stop global warming to prevent further disruption to these critical circulation systems." .

The results have been published in the journal Nature.

The melting of the ice caps and associated warming was closely linked to the start and end of the Ice Age.

Study abstract: The Indian Ocean provides a source of salt for North Atlantic deep-water convection sites, via the Agulhas Leakage, and may thus drive changes in the ocean's overturning circulation. However, little is known about the salt content variability of Indian Ocean and Agulhas Leakage waters during past glacial cycles and how this may influence circulation. Here we show that the glacial Indian Ocean surface salt budget was notably different from the modern, responding dynamically to changes in sea level. Indian Ocean surface salinity increased during glacial intensification, peaking in glacial maxima. We find that this is due to rapid land exposure in the Indonesian archipelago induced by glacial sea-level lowering, and we suggest a mechanistic lagged Southern Hemisphere ice-volume forcing response. Our results imply that large northward salt transport from the glacial Indian Ocean, via the Agulhas Leakage, may have been a key factor in weakening the overturning circulation near the end of the last deglaciation, and thus possibly favoured the transition from glacial to interglacial climate.

Evidence suggests that the onset and end of the Ice Age was cyclical.

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